121. The Demonic, Part 3: Evil is Self-Defeating and Inscrutable

It is popular these days to think about evil from a scientific perspective that sees evil as, for example, a function of an improperly working brain. Such approaches typically remove free will and the more traditional parameters in which discussions of evil have taken place such as moral accountability, damnation, turning away from God, etc. These changes can be helpful since many actions once perceived as a function of free agency are indeed determined by brain functions over which we have no control. But in many cases these approaches seem to explain away, rather than explain, evil. So it may be helpful to meditate for a while on a view of moral evil firmly grounded in human freedom and our fear of it. After 25 years I continue to be amazed by this account and its explanatory power.

The Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), via his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, put forth an intriguing and ground-breaking account of demonic evil in chapter four of his eccentric work The Concept of Anxiety (1844). In this work he claims the demonic person has anxiety about the good which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good. This anxiety gives rise to freely chosen defiant actions that seek to undermine the good in order to free from the anxiety it causes. This active defiance is not evil for evil’s sake; rather, it is a form of instrumental evil which sees evil acts as an indispensable means to escape from the good. Demonic defiance has three modes of interrelated behavior: shutupness or inclosing reserve, the contentless/boring, and the sudden. I will explain these forms with the help of Kierkegard’s writings and insights from other philosophers. I will also show each has something self-defeating and inscrutable about it. Finally, I will discuss why, according to Kierkeagaard, demonic evil exists. I close with an extended definition of the demonic as a summary.


Kierkegaard notes that “The Good, of course, signifies the restoration of freedom, redemption, salvation, of whatever one would call it.” And these aspects of the good come about through meaningful communication and disclosure in order to experience love, forgiveness, trust, and so on. Thus the demonic person’s initial and fundamental strategy is to shut himself up with himself to prevent avoid contact with the good. Kierkegaard notes that this is the basic form of activity the demonic takes—a form of withdrawal from the world. He refers to this form as shutupness or inclosing reserve and notes that the demonic individual “becomes more and more inclosed and does not want communication” (124). Since the expansive, communicating power of language is “precisely what saves” (124), the demonic person ultimately chooses to be mute in the sense of not revealing anything about himself. Shakespeare’s Iago offers a perfect slogan for this aspect of demonic evil in Othello, 1.1.66-67: 

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

As Harold Bloom points out in his book Iago: The Strategies of Evil (Scribner: 2018), this contrasts with God’s declaration to Moses in Exodus 3:14 —“And God answered Moses, I AM THAT I AM” — and Paul’s claim at 1 Corinthians 15:10 that “But by the grace of God I am that I am: and his grace which is in me, was not in vain: but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which is in me” (Geneva Bible). These Biblical quotations affirm both God’s authenticity and how God’s authentic grace can, in turn, make us authentic. Demonic withdrawal is the opposite: what is shown is not authentic. Such deception is an initial way to thwart interpersonal relationships in order to remain alone. Kierkegaard notes that “a legend has already represented [Mephistopheles] correctly. It relates that the devil for 3,000 years sat and speculated on how to destroy man—and finally he discovered it. Here the emphasis is on the 3,000 years, and the idea that this brings forth is precisely that of the brooding, inclosing reserve of the demonic” (131). And what was the Devil’s way to destroy man? Perhaps, as Roger Scruton points out in his book Modern Philosophy (Penguin, 1994), to convince us that we are all alone in the world:

“Religion is the affirmation of the first-person plural [i.e., we]. It tells us that, actually or possibly, we are members of something greater than ourselves, which is the source of consolation and continuity. Nor do you have to believe in the devil to accept the corollary: that communities may dissolve under the stress of disaffection, and that the force of dissolution can become active and willful in the manner of a god. The devil has one message, which is that there is no first-person plural. We are alone in the world, and the self is all that we can guarantee against it. All institutions and communities, all culture and law, are objects of sublime mockery: absurd in themselves, and the course of absurdity in their adherents. By promising to ‘liberate’ the self, the devil establishes a world where nothing but the self exists. This is the final triumph of the demon.” (480)

We see such a final triumph in Mark Twain’s novel The Mysterious Stranger when, at the end, Satan reveals a most troubling insight to Theodor, a boy he corrupted: 

“SATAN: Nothing exists; all is a dream. God — man — the world — the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars — a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space — and you!


SATAN: “And you are not you — you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence: I am but a dream — your dream, creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolved into the nothingness out of which you made me…”

The Self-Defeating Aspects of Shutupness

Kierkegaard asserts that a complete break with communication “is and remains an impossibility” (123) since selfhood, even evil selfhood, presupposes language and the intersubjective action that language involves. Of course, this isn’t to say that the demonic individual can’t remain mute, talk to himself, and mime to the extent that, for all practical purposes, the person remains shut up. But complete isolation is incoherent. As a result, we should expect that the goal of muteness may be thwarted by involuntary disclosures. The demonic individual, when confronted with manifestations of the good, may become so anxious that he will unfreely disclose something he has hidden: some cruel remark, some spiteful glance, some odd bodily gesture will betray the weakness of his stronghold. Such disclosures of lunacy will have an uncanny dimension since the demonic person will seem possessed like a dummy through which a ventriloquist—or perhaps even a legion of ventriloquists—is speaking (129). On such occasions we may come to understand what particular form of the good someone is anxious about: love, dialogue, beauty, meaning, truth, trust, confidence in their own abilities, intimacy, etc.

The Inscrutability of Shutupness

Involuntary disclosures may reveal something about the demonic person. But in many cases adequate understanding will elude us. Kierkegaard expresses this when, after discussing shut-upness, he writes: “However, I dare not continue further, for how could I finish even a merely algebraic naming, let alone an attempt to describe or break the silence of inclosing reserve in order to let its monologue become audible, for monologue is precisely speech, and therefore we characterize an inclosed person by saying that he talks to himself” (128). In The Sickness Unto Death (Penguin Publishing), Kierkegaard tells us that part of the problem is

“that the more spiritual the despair becomes, and the more the inwardness becomes a separate world for itself in reserve, the less consequence attaches to the external form under which the despair hides. But precisely the more spiritual the despair becomes, the more it attends with demonic cleverness to keep the despair enclosed in its reserve, and the more it therefore attends to neutralizing the externalities, making them as insignificant and inconsequential as possible.”

In extreme cases the externals will be so neutralized that any attempt to discern the internal realm will be self-contradictory: “What is the corresponding externality [to demonic despair]? Well, there is no ‘corresponding’ externality, since a corresponding externality which corresponds to reserve is a self-contradiction. If it corresponds then it discloses” (104). In any case, in the end we may have to accept that in some cases the demonic individual “is like the troll in the fairy-tale who disappears through a crevice that no one can see” (104). One thinks here of the many descriptions given by people who were acquainted with individuals who committed acts perceived by many to be evil like “he was so quiet”, “we never knew much about him”, “who would’ve thought he’d do something like that”, “never really talked much”, “I can’t believe it”, etc., etc.

The Contentless or The Boring

The fact that the demonic individual’s reserve disappears into a crevice doesn’t imply he or she lacks all continuity with the world: he or she still talks and interacts. But this interaction, rather than being authentic, will seek to negate the meaningful, sincere, and lively content that true acts of freedom reveal. Such acts of negation result in the second aspect of the demonic, namely, the contentless or the boring. The two terms are related: once there is little meaningful, sincere, and lively content then we usually end up with boring clichés, abstract principles, and other formulaic responses with very little life. And we can see here the role of defiance: the demonic person, to stay in a state of shut-upness, must defy those sources of the good that call him out of his hiding place. It isn’t about hiding alone; it is about undermining those sources of meaning that promise integration – sources the demonic person is anxious about.

For example, chatter, or empty talk, provides a doppelgänger—an evil double perhaps—of real conversation that can stand in for sincere and meaningful connections with others. Chatter, despite its mania which “chatters about anything and everything and continues incessantly”, can be painfully boring precisely because its content is so superficial. But it is precisely this superficiality that enables one to be mute while speaking. We shouldn’t think that the superficiality of chatter is benign. Rather, it can be incredibly demoralizing as Kierkegaard’s assessment of gossip in his book Works of Love (Harper Row, 1962) shows: “The evil element in the world is still, as I have always said, the crowd — and small-talk. Nothing is as demoralizing as gossiping small talk.” At times this gossiping takes on a “raging, demonic passion in a man, almost on a terrifying scale.” This passion to gossip is in contrast to love which, rather than multiplying and exaggerating people’s sins, “hides the multiplicity of sins, for what it cannot avoid seeing or hearing, it hides in silence, in a mitigating explanation, and in forgiveness” (270). Love enhances the freedom of others and helps them transcend their past and move into a better future through forgiveness and promising. Gossiping thwarts such freedom enhancement and makes people more beholden to their past or, in some cases, beholden to a past that they did not create but is created by the gossip itself. In any case, the point is that the demonic person, in order to avoid the goods that intersubjective communication offers, can anxiously resort to chatter which negates meaningful content and loving relations with others in order to remain alone.

Another example arises in Kierkegaard’s book Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton) through the troubling words of a demonic “fashion designer” who seeks to reduce all vestiges of taste, beauty, and virtue to crassness, vanity, and silliness. The designer in his boutique, like the Devil in hell with his legion of trained minions, snares virtuous women, sacrifices the humble content of their characters, and sends them into the world of fashion. This world facilitates a fall from grace in which a desire for superficial sameness replaces the desire to be profound individual. Thoughtful humans are miraculously transformed into dolls that, despite being objectified, manipulated, and mocked, feel no dismay in their blissful world. This is a world where the content of the self gradually empties into lunacy. Such an emptying of character can serve the demonic person well: who would want to forge a relationship with such a fallen woman who belongs in the loony bin? Thus removing the virtuous content of others through temptation can remove the threat of a meaningful relationship that would offer various aspects of the good such as love, redemption, salvation, and so on.

These examples of chatter and fashion should not lead us to overlook even more sinister dimensions of the contentless/boring. Coming back to The Concept of Anxiety and Mephistopheles brooding for 3,000 years, Kierkegaard notes that “the prodigious span of time evokes the notion of the dreadful emptiness and contentlessness of evil” and “the quietness that comes to mind when one sees a man who looks as if he were long since dead and buried” (133). This suggests that evil acts are acts of “extinction” that seek to drain everything of meaning, significance, development, and even life (133). Here we can think of the many ways defiant people have destroyed people, things, and places that offered them ways to enhance their freedom. Schools, sacred places of worship, prophets of the good, coveted people, and even beautiful works of art and landscape have been mocked, desecrated, and destroyed in order to escape the anxiety they cause. This account may therefore shed some illuminating light on the many horrifying acts of evil we have to face in our society.

The Self-Defeating Aspects of The Contentless

Meaning is relational: we find meaning in how we relate to things, how things relate to one another, how we relate to other humans in mutual respect and recognition, etc. Demonic people seek to drain the world of things and people that have the potential for relational meaning and, in doing so, end up living in a world to which they can’t really relate: they live in a world that is more and more meaningless. Of course this is what they want: they want to be alone and unrelated to everything but themselves. But without meaningful relationships there is no vitality, no passion, no growth, and no development of self; and so demons, like vampires, need to stay in contact with the living world of meaning to suck something from it. Thus their meaning becomes the destruction of meaning – a contradictory goal which cannot be achieved. In the end, the demonic end up more and more like addicts beholden to a world of human recognition without being able to enter into it. Far from destroying meaning, they become parasitic upon it.

The Inscrutability of the Contentless

One troubling implication of this view is that the more successful a demonic person is in pursuing contentlessness the less content can be known about them. But this ignorance isn’t simply because they are so well hidden. Rather it is because their inner life is so impoverished that there isn’t really much to be discovered. Indeed, those who seek to unravel the most intense forms of evil may end up with an x: “Let the inclosing reserve be x and its content x, denoting the most terrible, the most insignificant, the horrible, whose presence in life few probably even dream about, but also the trifles to which no one pays attention” (126). In his book On Human Nature (Princeton, 2017) Roger Scruton makes some comments about evil that illuminate this notion of evil as an x. He suggests that evil people 

“are visitors from another sphere, incarnations of the Devil. Even their charm — and it is a recognized fact that evil people are often charming — is only further proof of their Otherness. They are, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing they seek to destroy. That characterization of evil is summarized in the famous line that Goethe gives Mephistopheles: “Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint” [I am the spirit that forever negates].”

He then makes a connection with Iago which connects with our earlier point about Iago not being what he is:

“Through his words and deeds Iago prompts the stunned recognition that he really means to destroy Othello, that there is no sufficient motive apart from the desire to do this terrible thing, and that there is no plea or reasoning that could deflect him from his path. After all, Iago seeks to destroy Othello by causing Othello to destroy Desdemona, who has done Iago no wrong. It is the incomprehensible, as it were noumenal, nature of Iago’s motive that enables him so effectively to conceal it. Peering into Iago’s soul we find a void, a nothingness; like Mephistopheles, he is a great negation, a soul composed of antispirit, as a body might be composed of antimatter.” 

He then moves from fiction to the non-fictional evil of the Holocaust in which the camps “were designed not merely to destroy human beings but also to deprive them of their humanity.” He continues:

“In other words the goal included that pursued in one way by Iago and in another way by Mephistopheles, which was to rob the inmates of their souls. The camps were animated by antispirit, and people caught up in them stumbled around as though burdened by a great negation sign. These antihumans were repulsive and verminous to those permitted to observe them. Hence their extermination could be represented as necessary, and their disappearance into a shared forgetfulness became the spiritual equivalent of matter tumbling into a black hole.” (137-138)

Scruton’s comments suggest that the negations demonic agents create in others are a function of their own negations, their own lack of content, their being as x. To be sure, on the outside an evil person may exhibit seductive charisma. But, as Terry Eagleton observes, this may be a deception — a deception that may have misled Hannah Arendt in her assessment of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann as banal rather than demonic:

“Traditionally, evil is seen not as sexy but as mind-numbingly monotonous. Kierkegaard speaks of the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety as “the contentless, the boring.” Like some modernist art, it is all form and no substance. Hannah Arendt, writing of the petit-bourgeois banality of Adolf Eichmann, sees him as having neither depth nor any demonic dimension. But what if this depthlessness is exactly what the demonic is like? What if it is more like a minor official than a flamboyant tyrant? Evil is boring because it is lifeless. Its seductive allure is purely superficial…Evil is a transitional state of being—a domain wedged between life and death, which is why we associate it with ghosts, mummies, and vampires. Anything which is neither quite dead nor quite alive can become an image of it. It is boring because it keeps doing the same dreary thing, trapped as it is between life and death.” (123-124)

The Sudden

The sudden is shut-upness from a temporal point of view. Communication is about meaning unfolding over time and this unfolding presupposes continuity. One thing comes after another in some ordered way so that meaning can accumulate and reach a consummation that brings together what went before it. For example, we see how a story comes to a dramatic end, how an argument reaches a conclusion, or how a melody reaches its final note. In each of these cases the final step is not just a step or a termination; it is a fulfillment or consummation of some sort that is organically connected to what precedes it. But the sudden is a negation of continuity: “At one moment it is there, in the next moment it is gone, and no sooner is it gone than it is there again, wholly and completely. It cannot be incorporated or worked into any continuity, but whatever expresses itself in this manner is precisely the sudden” (130). According to Kierkegaard, a free self is integrated since its choices and actions establish a thread of continuity from the past into the future. The sudden disrupts this integration since “the sudden is a complete abstraction from continuity, from the past and the future” (132). Kierkegaard gives us a helpful illustration from ballet that again invokes Mephistopheles:

“Without being the sudden as such, the mimical may express the sudden. In this respect the ballet master, Bournonville, deserves great credit for his representation of Mephistopheles. The horror that seizes one upon seeing Mephistopheles leap in through the window and remain stationary in the position of a leap! This spring in the leap, reminding one of the leap of the bird of prey and of the wild beast, which doubly terrify because they commonly leap from a completely motionless position, has an infinite effect. Therefore Mephistopheles must walk as little as possible, because walking itself is a kind of transition to the leap and involves a presentiment of the possibility of the leap. The first appearance of Mephistopheles in the ballet Faust is therefore not a theatrical coup, but a very profound thought.” (131-132)

According to Kierkegaard’s theory of evil the sudden, in violating continuity, is not a natural phenomenon that functions in accordance with the continuity established by the laws of nature and cause and effect. Rather, it must, unlike the many scientific attempts to grasp evil today, be understood with reference to the supernatural soul and its efforts to negate the freedom of the good. Kierkegaard argues for this claim as follows:

“If the demonic were something somatic, it could never be the sudden. When a fever or the insanity etc, recurs, a law is finally discovered, and this law annuls the sudden to a certain degree. But the sudden knows no law. It does not belong among natural phenomena but is a psychical phenomenon—it is an expression of unfreedom.” (130)

Here we should think of statements like, “the attack came out of nowhere”, “where the hell did that cruel comment come from?”, “no one could have seen that coming”, “it was like he was suddenly a different person”, and so on.

The Self-Defeating Aspects of The Sudden

A demonic person seeks to be isolated from others and would, ideally, do without others. All the selfish freedom associated with evil and the devil is here given philosophical expression: the demonic person wants to be alone and thus discontinuous with others since “freedom is always communicating” and “communication is in turn the expression for continuity….” (124, 129). But if he defies continuity then he risks becoming afflicted with the sudden himself: his own personal identity, his own continuity from the past into the future, will be compromised. Kierkegaard likens this state to the “dizziness a spinning top must have, which constantly revolves upon its own pivot” and notes that the “monotonous sameness” of this state can “drive the individuality to complete insanity” (130). In part two of his book Either/Or, Kierkegaard has his character Judge William offer a warning to a young seducer: remaining hidden from the good will lead to involuntary manifestations of a disintegrated self. This warning captures the self-defeating aspect of the sudden:

“Are you not aware that there comes a midnight hour when everyone must unmask; do you believe that life will always allow itself to be trifled with; do you believe that one can sneak away just before midnight in order to avoid it?  Or are you not dismayed by it? I have seen people in life who have deceived others for such a long time that eventually they are unable to show their true nature. I have seen people who have played hide-and-seek so long that at last in a kind of lunacy they force their secret thoughts on others just as loathsomely as they proudly had concealed them from them earlier. Or can you think of anything more appalling than having it all end with the disintegration of your essence into a multiplicity? So that you actually become several, just like that unhappy demoniac became legion, and thus you would have lost what is the most inward and holy in a human being, the binding power of the personality?”  

Thus, in seeking to avoid continuity with others, demonic people become discontinuous: they begin to lose the very self they think their discontinuous isolation will liberate.

The Inscrutability of The Sudden

Like the above two aspects of the demonic, this violation of continuity has a disturbing implication for our understanding: the more demonic something is the less we will be able to understand it. After all, understanding presupposes continuity insofar as we seek to grasp how some past conditions gave rise to some event or might give rise to some future event. Such inquiries will presuppose the continuity of laws of nature. But the sudden is a rupture with natural continuity and therefore we should expect to have our search for continuous understanding thwarted to some extent. Therefore Eagleton puts it well in On Evil when he writes, “The less sense it makes, the more evil it is” (3).

Why Are There Demons?

Why would anyone be so anxious about the good that he seeks to defy it? Why would anyone want to threaten their own freedom and the freedom of others? Why would anyone, when faced with possibilities of salvation, communication, and love say, as the demons in the Bible say to Jesus, What have I to do with you? (cf. Mark 5:17; also Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39). Well, Kierkegaard was the first to see that many people do not want freedom. In a draft to his Concept of Anxiety, he writes: “Perhaps this may seem strange talk to some people, for who does not want to be free?  However, the way in which a person speaks about such things indicates that he has no conception of the crisis that arises when freedom is to be brought into unfreedom. Wishing to be free is an easy matter, because wishing is the most paltry and unfree of all performances” (203). Kierkegaard’s ability to see how burdensome freedom can be led him, especially in The Sickness Unto Death, to some insights that help us explain the demonic defiance of the good or free, integrated selfhood. First, to exist as a free self is to be responsible for one’s actions. And with this responsibility comes a heavy burden: the burden of judgment from ourselves and others that brings guilt, remorse, regret, a sense of failure, and so on. Second, to be integrated with others is also to be revealed to others: people know where we stand.  But this revelation can bring tremendous suffering since, once revealed, people can harm us and manipulate us. Lastly, an integrated self is integrated into the lives of others and is therefore dependent on them to a large extent. But this dependence thwarts the Promethean drive to omnipotence and domination that many people have. Very often demonic defiance is essentially revenge on a world that prevents total domination. The demonic person essentially says: “If I can’t have it all then I will make myself and others as miserable as possible! In doing so I will prove the world is actually a miserable world not worth having in the first place”. This would also apply to individual things as well: if x can’t be controlled then demonic defiance will show x is worthless.

Summary: The Demonic Defined

So we see that the demonic person is anxious about the good and seeks to defy it as much as possible in accordance with the above three modes of behavior. In light of these observations, I formulated this extended definition as a summary:

The demonic person is anxious (both attracted and repelled) about the Good or free, integrated selfhood. This anxiety leads to a self-conscious defiance of the Good in order to escape the suffering associated with inter-subjective revelation, dependency, and responsibility. The primary mode of defiance is shut-upness or voluntary isolation. However, to maintain isolation demonic people will pursue contentlessness by destroying any meaningful content that threatens to draw them out: they will negate continuity, communication, meaning, and life leaving isolation, muteness, meaninglessness, and even death in its wake. This freely chosen and destructive defiance of the good is evil. Since integrated selfhood presupposes communication and revelation, the more demonic people’s defiance succeeds—the more they are isolated and shun modes of salvation and redemption—the more they are marked by the sudden and begin to disintegrate. In many cases, the process of disintegration results in unfree or involuntary disclosures of what was hidden. But we must accept that the understanding such disclosures bring will be limited insofar as the evil of the demonic is profoundly hidden, loses content as its negation develops, and violates the very continuity any act of understanding presupposes. Demonic evil will, in many cases, remain inscrutable.

For the fist two posts on demonic evil in this series, go here.

For the next post in this series, a post which looks at how we might deal with evil, go here.

For a series on Kierkegaard’s philosophy that can place much of the above in a larger context, go here.

For a post that contrasts natural evil and moral evil, go here.

For a three-part series on the privation theory of evil, go here.

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